Issue 128, Fall 1993
The following letter of Dylan Thomas is addressed to Marguerite Caetani, the editor of the legendary magazine Botteghe Oscure. Dylan Thomas needs no introduction, but a brief description of his remarkable patroness seems in order.
Marguerite Chapin was bom to a distinguished American family, married the Italian Prince Koffre do Caetani, and came to live in Rome permanently in the years after World War I. There was much gossip at first in the social circles of Boston, New York and Rome, but Marguerite’s dignity quickly silenced it. She brought her own great cultivation into the genial Philistinism of the Caetani family. She loved modem art and had a collection of paintings on the walls of the Palazzo Caetani. The Caetani brothers had fun turning the pictures upside down to demonstrate how little difference it made, in their view. But the marriage with Roffredo was one of obvious affection.
I came to know Marguerite in 1955 when she wrote to me in New York. She had read my stories in The New Yorker and asked if I would write for her magazine Botteghe Oscure. I knew of this magazine, which she started shortly after World War IL It was tri-lingual; each quaderno, or issue, featured the work of writers and poets in French, English and Italian. Marguerite wished to know if I preferred to write in the Italian section or the English section. She had read only my English stories but knew that before I fled Fascist Italy I had written in Italian and continued to do so. In due course, she published me in both languages. The magazine had a great impact in Rome, which was a rather provincial place at the time. She really opened Italy to the world of letters. Soon, most writers and editors in Europe and America knew of Botteghe Oscure.
My relationship with her was very close. She treated me as a son (I was in my early forties, she in her sixties). Her own son had died, ending the true Caetani line, and her kindness to me was maternal as well as literary. I frequently had dinner alone with her and Roffredo in the Palazzo, preferring the company of this gentle, delicate woman to the loud camaraderie of my cafe friends.
Botteghe Oscure translates literally as “the dark shops.” It is the name of an ancient street which passed along one side of the Circus Flaminius. After the Circus fell into ruins, merchants set up shops in its dark arcades. Palazzo Caetani is situated on the Via delle Botteghe Oscure.
The publication was founded in 1948 and came out semiannually until I960 when Marguerite felt she could no longer continue as editor. It had the unadorned appearance characteristic of European books until recently. The cover is a textured tan; the title, a rich brown, is stamped in large, elegant letters at the top of each edition (some editions are almost 500 pages, with very small print). The quaderno number is stamped near the bottom in large Roman numerals. There are no advertisements, announcements, illustrations, contributors notes — and no price. Just text.
In his letter to Marguerite, Dylan Thomas explains with desperate and comic eloquence why he could not “finish the second half of the piece for you.” There is nothing to indicate the nature of this “piece,” but in Botteghe Oscure IX, 1952, one finds the answer. In the English section, along with Alexander Trocchi, Carson McCullers, e. e. cummings, James Agee, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Paul Goodman, May Sarton and William Jay Smith, is “Llareggub: A Piece for Radio Perhaps’’ by Dylan Thomas.
This is the first half of what later became the classic Under Milk Wood, completed for the BBC just a month before his death at thirty-nine, in 1953.
The Boat House,
Laugharne, CarmarHanshire, Wales.
6 November 1952
My dear Marguerite Caetani,
It was beautiful to have your letter, and it made me a hundred times more ashamed, if that were possible, of my wretched, long, dark silence.